We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I pay tribute to noble Lords for their many eloquent and informed speeches, and to our Prime Minister for her leadership on this issue. I thank the many organisations and individuals who have campaigned for changes to our laws and worked with survivors for decades. In particular, I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lady Newlove for all her work over the last seven years.
I grew up in a supportive and loving family environment. The one thing that my father expected from me, apart from hard work, was always to respect my mother in the way he did. In my professional life, I have worked for seven years on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, a campaign to end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Early on in this quest, a woman who worked with victims of domestic violence in London came to see me. She asked why I was spending so much time on violence against women abroad when women at home, here in the United Kingdom, were suffering. My answer at the time was that, to my knowledge, we had a system to look after and support survivors while women in war-torn countries had nothing—no protection, no recognition, no funding and no justice. But her question stayed with me and I have often thought about her. I have concluded that I was wrong and that we have to do both. We must confront abuse at home and use our influence abroad to try to address mass atrocities; to do one without the other is illogical.
It is truly appalling that in the 21st century, the most dangerous place for a woman is her home. According to the UN study of gender-related killing, more than half of all female murder victims in 2017, globally, were killed by an intimate partner or family member. Women are far more likely than men to die at the hands of someone they know, and someone whom they think loves them. I acknowledge that many men and boys are victims too, and I acknowledge the men who work steadfastly on these issues, including in our police forces, NGOs, government departments and Parliament. None the less, domestic violence disproportionately affects women. It is an injustice compounded by inequality.
It is deeply troubling to me that the Office for National Statistics reports that there has been little change in the prevalence of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom. As others have pointed out, an estimated 2 million adults experienced domestic abuse in our own country during 2017-18. Most of these cases still do not come to the attention of police or result in a conviction. This requires deep scrutiny and national soul-searching. The total economic and social cost of domestic abuse is greater than the total estimated economic and social cost of crime, according to the Home Office, even without taking into account the costs associated with financial and economic abuse, for which there is little data, and costs relating to children and the wider family. This is truly a social and public health emergency.
In addition to urgent questions regarding medical support, social services and housing, I believe there is a huge cultural taboo and stigma contributing to it still being an underreported and invisible crime—a crime behind a curtain. Women who try to report abuse are often described as crazy and emotional. They often face pressures from family and friends to keep silent, or to minimise what has happened to them. There is a stereotype that a strong woman cannot be a victim of domestic violence, or has somehow provoked her partner’s behaviour. Mothers are often labelled as angry or vindictive when they try to shelter their children from the effects of continuing trauma after they leave. We have a long way to go to understand the dimensions of this crime and stop failing survivors, either through our legal and health systems or our social attitudes.
I strongly welcome the Government’s intention to enshrine in law the definition of domestic abuse, including controlling, coercive and manipulative non-physical abuse. Other countries could learn from this example. I also welcome plans to establish a domestic abuse commissioner, to create new domestic violence protection notices and orders, and to prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts. However, we must not forget children. Children are not the property of their parents and we need to pay far greater attention to their trauma and needs. No one has a right to damage or traumatise them and destroy their lives, their parents included. I hope that the Government heed the call from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee to recognise this explicitly in the legislation and to develop a specific strategy for their protection and support. I hope the Minister tells the House what plans there are to introduce paid leave for victims of domestic violence, and improve training and education of GPs and obstetricians in the UK, in this area.
I worked for many years with my noble friend Lord Hague of Richmond. It made a deep impression on me that he, who served as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, regards the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as the proudest moment of his career, given its transformative impact on laws and attitudes. We can take inspiration from this, and work hard to ensure a real and transformative change that can eventually root out this disease of domestic violence from our society. I hope that the domestic abuse Bill is one day an Act that we are all proud of too.